Ethiopian PM Abiy Ahmed wins Nobel Peace Prize: Meteoric rise for son of poor villagers

Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed Ali. Ali wins the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize for "for his decisive initiative to resolve the border conflict with neighbouring Eritrea," the Norwegian Nobel Committee said on Friday.
Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed Ali. Ali wins the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize for "for his decisive initiative to resolve the border conflict with neighbouring Eritrea," the Norwegian Nobel Committee said on Friday.PHOTO: DPA

ADDIS ABABA • The son of poor villagers, a former spy boss, and now the man behind dizzying attempts to reform Africa's fastest-growing economy and heal wounds with Ethiopia's neighbours, Mr Abiy Ahmed has seen an unpredictable and peril-strewn rise to fame.

Another chapter was added to his remarkable tale yesterday when he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

Since becoming Ethiopia's Prime Minister in April last year, the 43-year-old has aggressively pursued policies that have the potential to upend his country's society and reshape dynamics beyond its borders.

Within just six months of his swearing-in, Mr Abiy made peace with bitter foe Eritrea, released dissidents from jail, apologised for state brutality, and welcomed home exiled armed groups branded as "terrorists" by his predecessors.

More recently, he has turned to fleshing out his vision for the economy while laying the groundwork for elections scheduled to take place next May.

But analysts fret that his policies are simultaneously too much, too fast for the political old guard and too little, too late for the country's angry youth, whose protests swept him to power.

Despite the challenges, Mr Abiy's allies predict that his deep well of personal ambition will prompt him to keep swinging big.

Mr Tareq Sabt, a businessman and friend of Mr Abiy, said one of the first things that struck him when they met was the Prime Minister's drive: "I always said to friends, when this guy comes to power, you will see a lot of change in Ethiopia."

Born in the western town of Beshasha to a Muslim father and Christian mother, Mr Abiy "grew up sleeping on the floor" in a house that lacked electricity and running water. "We used to fetch water from the river," he said in a wide-ranging radio interview with Sheger FM last month, adding that he did not even see electricity or an asphalt road until the seventh grade.


Yet, Mr Abiy progressed quickly through the power structures created by the ruling coalition, the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), after it took power from the Derg military junta in 1991.

Fascinated with technology, he joined the military as a radio operator while still a teenager. He rose to the rank of lieutenant-colonel before entering government, first as the founding head of Ethiopia's cyber-spying outfit, the Information Network Security Agency. He then became a minister in the capital Addis Ababa, and a party official in his home region of Oromia.

The circumstances that led to Mr Abiy's ascent to high office can be traced to late 2015.

A government plan to expand the capital's administrative boundaries into the surrounding Oromia region was seen as a land grab, sparking protests led by the Oromo, Ethiopia's largest ethnic group, and the Amhara people, another of Ethiopia's four main ethnic groups.

States of emergency and mass arrests - typical EPRDF tactics - worked to quell protests but failed to address the underlying grievances.

When then Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn abruptly resigned, many feared a power struggle within the EPRDF, or even an unravelling of the coalition.


Instead, the coalition's member parties chose Mr Abiy to become the first Oromo prime minister.

Holding credible elections by next May, the current timeline, is a daunting task, yet Mr Abiy is keen on scoring the kind of victory that would give him a mandate with the general public.

First, he must contend with Ethiopia's formidable security challenges. Ethnic violence has been on the rise in recent years, and in June, Mr Abiy faced the greatest threat yet to his hold on power when gunmen assassinated high-ranking officials, including a prominent regional president and the army chief.

Mr Abiy seems well aware of the danger he faces, and from time to time makes public reference to attempts on his own life, including a grenade attack at a rally just two months after he took up his post.

For now, as he noted in the Sheger FM interview, he remains in control. "There were many attempts so far, but death didn't want to come to me," he said.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 12, 2019, with the headline 'Meteoric rise for son of poor villagers'. Print Edition | Subscribe